The following post is written by Benjamin Conard, founder of ‘Five North’, a dedicated change agent who strives to support farmers in West Africa with fair wages, good working conditions, and a democratic workplace by utilizing a fair trade business model.
I am a senior in my last semester studying Business Administration and German at SUNY Geneseo in Western, NY. For 6 years I have immersed myself in the fair trade movement on a local, national, and international scale. For my work in the fair trade movement, I was recently named one of the Top 10 Biggest Fairtrade Fans in the world. I’ve worn every hat imaginable… except one. I’ve worked in retail, wholesale, with advocacy organizations, fair trade producer groups, and even with certifiers, but I have never dove in, hands on, to drive the impact myself. So, I decided it was time to get my hands dirty… and what better way to do that than making chocolate?
Five North was started because my team and I wanted to serve customers in the most convenient and delicious way possible, while changing the lives of farmers in West Africa. In my 6 years of fair trade advocacy I have learned not only how to engage the already socially conscious on a higher level, but also how to engage those who, otherwise, might be unwilling to. As a fair trade advocate, I have found the best way to engage a group in learning, understanding, and spreading the word about this movement… Want to know the answer? Chocolate.
Chocolate and our mission at Five North embody our commitment to fair trade, but I didn’t want to just stop there. So, we decided to expand our product to appeal to more consumers in various markets, thus spreading our mission of fair trade even further. When you cover all kinds of healthy superfoods in fair trade chocolate, everyone wins. Consumers receive their daily chocolate fix, they benefit from the health attributes, and farmers and communities in the developing world receive the economic support they deserve for their hard work.
To sum it up… who doesn’t like [healthy, sustainable, and fair] chocolate?
10 years ago, my uncle opened a small fair trade retail store in Bar Harbor, ME where my family often spent summer vacations. While visiting with my sister, parents, cousins, aunt, and uncle, we would hike, kayak, and swim – the usual Maine activities. Of course, we would visit Fair Trade Winds to check it out – but when we were there, I was restless. Even at 10 years old I wanted to get my hands dirty. I learned about all of the products, where they were coming from, and developed a deeper understanding of what fair trade is and why it’s so important. I organized the shelves and made everything look nice so we could sell more. Making a sale was exciting. I knew not only that it was good for our small business, but also the artisans and farmers in the developing world who were being directly impacted from our customers’ purchases. It lit a fire in me that I’m sure will never burn out. Even when we were out exploring what Maine has to offer, I would borrow my uncle’s cell phone and call the store every hour on the hour asking the employee working – “How many people are in the store?” And “What are the total sales for today?”
Six years ago, my family opened a Fair Trade Winds in my home town. I spent every hour that I wasn’t at school or college working there. At this point, we upgraded to an online point of sale system… While away from the store, I was able to check the sales whenever I wanted!
Anyone who knows me also knows I don’t rest… ever. Sure, our team is writing a business plan, investor pitches, and formulating Five North on paper. But the best way to adapt an idea and start a business is to, well, get to business! So we got our hands dirty. On a small scale, we started sourcing ingredients, developing product, and making chocolate! We introduced the idea and a few samples to a local business owner in the community of our college. Supporting our mission and our new student startup, she agreed to give us space in her store for a few hours. This is a method commonly known as a ‘Pop-up Shop’, a test run of your business on a small scale to get a feel for the market of your product, without having to invest a ton of capital into a product that could potentially fail. It was with this ‘Pop-up Shop’ that we shared hundreds of samples, got customers talking, and even started selling some chocolate.
The results? Exciting.
We talked with customers about their chocolate-buying habits, shared samples, surveyed their honest reactions, and even sold over 115 bags of chocolate. We received critical feedback, attained some loyal customers, and even had some initial sales.
Warning: If the reaction to your launch is good, you’ll get customers saying things like: “When can I buy more?!” And “Where will this be sold?!” It is painful to know you have a customer who wants to actually give you money for your impact-driving product and to not have that product to sell to them!
While it might seem like getting yourself out there is the hardest part, it’s clear that our next (and even bigger) challenge is to make minor pivots and scale our venture appropriate to our market demand.
Entrepreneurship is often a scary and distant topic for many of you changemakers out there, but it doesn’t have to be either of those! As you’ve heard just from our story with Five North thus far, it only takes small scale dedication to get started in your own business. If you have the idea for a business, think of how you can apply that idea to fit the needs of consumers through a product or service. This is your WOW factor. Without a great product or service that can stand alone (apart from the goal of your social mission/business), the more difficult it will become to secure sales of the product. This is an important point to remember for all social venture businesses. A consumer is choosing to purchase a great product that they will actually use and refer to others, but they also choose to support another cause with that same purchase, which can sometimes cost a little more than competing products in order for the social venture to fulfill its mission of helping others. So the main importance here? Make sure your customers “get what they pay for”, a great product.
Many entrepreneurs get to this spot of securing their product and building their business, but then lack the necessary funds and capital to invest in a lot of product initially. There is a simple solution that Social Change Nation has seen work time and time again throughout supporting social ventures, a ‘Pop-up Shop’! These small scale businesses have been a recent success to many entrepreneurs because they also require less initial investment in capital funds, and only a small scale of produced products.
As in our story, you can see that by starting out small scale, we are now ready for our next challenge, building the brand through effective sales management — using the opportunity of starting out small to gain knowledge / feedback about what our customers were looking for in future products and the business as a whole. My biggest piece of advice to fellow social entrepreneurs ready to make change is to give it a try. Put your idea out there, be vulnerable, and see what happens. The worst that can happen? Maybe you’re a little embarrassed. The best that can happen? People really like what you have to offer. What will happen? You learn a whole lot.